The capabilities of mobile devices have grown astronomically over the past couple of years. Even the most basic cell phones have features and functions that were only available for high-end devices or not available at all a short time ago. Smartphone capabilities have expanded even faster. A smartphone isn t likely to replace your computer, but with the addition of some well-selected applications, it can provide remarkable sources of information, connectivity, and entertainment.

There are thousands of applications available for mobile devices. Finding the best ones from among the available options can be a challenge, but with a bit of information you ll be able to zero in on just what you re looking.

Operating System
Mobile applications are essentially software programs written to add to the functions that a mobile device can perform. One of the first things that you need to know when looking for applications is which operating system (OS) your device uses. When buying a program for a computer you just have to know if you re buying for a PC or a Mac. There are a few more possibilities when dealing with mobile devices. The two biggest players in the smartphone game are the Apple iPhone 3G and the BlackBerry smartphones. Each uses a proprietary OS, i.e. The BlackBerry utilizes BlackBerry Handheld Software while the iPhone runs on Apple s OS X.

The Windows Mobile OS is common among other manufacturers including Samsung, Motorola, HP, and HTC. Like the Windows OS for PCs, it doesn t matter which company made the device as long as it s running the Windows Mobile OS. Devices manufactured by Palm usually operate on the proprietary Palm OS, but one word of caution   there are some Palm devices that use the Windows Mobile OS.

Symbian is the most common operating system worldwide but is much less prominent in North America. It powers smartphones manufactured by numerous well-known companies including Nokia, LG, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola, and Fujitsu. The latest entry into the mobile OS arena is Android, created by search engine giant Google. The first, and so far only, smartphone using the Android OS is the T-Mobile G1 manufactured by HTC. Soon, other devices based on Android will be available with offerings from Motorola and Samsung, among others.

Types of Applications
To keep track of the myriad apps available, vendors have created a number of general categories into which each fits. Because a given app may have more than one distinct feature, it is not uncommon for it to appear in multiple categories.

Travel
Travel apps are among the most popular. When combined with the device s GPS function, they can help you find your way in unfamiliar locations by pinpointing your current location and helping you find a particular address or business. Some can be used to translate into another language or convert currency. Some travel apps adapt to wherever you might be whereas others cover a specific location such as ones that provide up-to-the-minute information for a city s subway routes and schedules. Navigation apps are related to travel apps particularly in that they are generally based on GPS information. They can help you find the least expensive gasoline within a given distance or provide live traffic cam feeds.

Finance
Finance applications can help you keep track of personal expenses and even help you stay within a budget. Some are related to particular banks and can assist you in paying bills, locating an ATM locally, or transferring money. Other financial apps will allow to access real-time stock market information on the markets of your choice.

Productivity
Productivity apps can help you make the most of both business and personal facets of life. Among the most useful ones are apps that will help keep track of schedules and plans. You can, in effect, expand your own memory using your mobile device because it will never forget an appointment you ve entered. Many business applications have similar features but also give uniquely enterprise uses like charging a customer s credit card, processing orders, or keeping track of your billable hours.

Reference
The many reference applications can be especially helpful and an entire library of material is available on your handheld. Whether you need a dictionary, a thesaurus, or an encyclopedia, there are apps that can meet your needs. There are apps in this category that will alert you aware to world holidays or make of unit of measure conversions instantly. Information about the world s geography, governments, economy, and infrastructure are at your fingertips.

Healthcare and Fitness
The healthcare and fitness applications can be invaluable in keeping track of diet and exercise activities or help you plan nutritious meals. At the high end of this category, there are even apps which are designed for nurses or trauma physicians to provide current information about symptoms and treatments.

Entertainment
Entertainment generally is huge among mobile apps. Just as anything can be entertaining to the right person, there s no telling what you might find in this category. Music, movies, sports absolutely but they re big enough that they also have categories all to themselves. Games. Magic tricks. You can find apps that will amaze family and friends. Even if you just want to daydream, there are apps that will help in the effort.

Social Networking
Popular computer based social networking programs like MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr are all available in mobile format. Communicating with friends and potential friends, sharing pictures and opinions, and generally being in touch are no further than your phone.

Sports
Whether spectator or participant, fantasy or real, there are sports apps to meet your needs. Track your favorite teams, leagues or your own golf or bowling stats; or play sporting games on your device. Golf, hunting, fishing, football, soccer all on your mobile phone.

Music
For music, movie, or TV fans, there are programs to help you locate your favorites or enhance the media player functions of your smartphone. And don t forget reading. Classic books from Shakespeare to the Bible are readily available for your mobile device.

Games
Games also rate their own rapidly expanding category. From traditional crossword puzzles, chess, and mahjong to Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG), you play on your mobile device to your heart s content. Fairly recent additions to the mix are mobile editions of spectacularly popular music games like Guitar Hero.

Weather
Local, national, and international news is available on your phone with the right app as are up-to-the-minute weather conditions and forecasts. There are also apps designed for students to assist with studies as well as promoting organizational skills.

Utilities
A final group of apps is a catch-all category know as utilities. As the name implies they lend versatility to your smartphone essentially enhancing capabilities such as email, messaging, and personal information management that are already resident on the device.

Shopping Choices
If you happen to be shopping for apps for an iPhone 3G you have exactly one legal source and that is the iTunes App Store. Fortunately, it is an excellent resource with literally thousands of apps in 19 categories. For the T-Mobile G1 there is the Android Market. Being new, it has a small number of apps designed for devices using the Google Android OS but it is sure to expand rapidly as additional Android phones reach the market and as third party developers add their offerings. At this time only free apps are available in the Android market but paid apps should be available in the near future. Android apps, both paid and free, are also available from commercial vendors including Handango and MobiHand.

For apps for BlackBerries and devices using the Windows Mobile, Palm, or Symbian operating systems, there are several major sites. They include Handango, Handmark, and MobiHand. When shopping these sites start by selecting your device and then follow along it s easy.

Price
The pricing of mobile apps is an area of generally good news for the consumer: big bang-for-the-buck value. There are a surprisingly large number of free applications available in all categories. Other free applications are abbreviated versions of paid applications that are designed to give the user a taste of what the full app is like. It s not unusual for the trial version to be adequate, but if you decide to purchase the program, many are still available for under $1! Some apps sell for as much as about $100 or more but those are uncommon. Also, some apps require a subscription, typically available for a month, a quarter, or a year. The subscription based programs are often among the most expensive.

Mobile phones, particularly smartphones, offer unprecedented convenience, flexibility, and communication for busy lives. Mobile applications team with the devices to make them even more formidable and indispensible tools. The mobile app market is expanding at a ferocious pace that will only gain speed in the future.

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